CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — It was probably the first Saturday in a while we were all bummed out there wasn’t an Illinois football game to watch, but a bye week was much needed for this ranked team (yep, still love saying it).
Ahead of Saturday’s upcoming matchup against Nebraska, the Illinois coaching staff addressed the media on Monday afternoon at Memorial Stadium in their weekly press conferences.
Much needed break
After winning the last five games — including the four that were in-between this past bye week and the first bye week — Illinois was able to take a deep breath.
The 26-14 win against Minnesota a couple Saturdays back extended their record to 6-1 overall and 3-1 in Big Ten play. Those three wins coming against Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota all in a row.
This past bye week was set-up perfectly in the eyes of the coaches.
“The schedule is really set up well for us,” said offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr.
Playing three straight Big Ten West foes and then being able to rest after three hard-earned wins put the Illini in a great spot.
“I think you’ll see a refreshed team,” Lunney said. “We’ll need all that Saturday.”
The Illini will now finish off the season with five more Big Ten games starting Saturday and stakes only continue to get higher as the path to Indianapolis continues to clear up.
“We have Nebraska,” said head coach Bret Bielema. “But then we have four games — two home, two away — that we have to be at our best.”
Both teams are coming off a bye week, so presumably they each got a bit more preparation on each other than usual. We’ll focus on the Illini first.
“We were able to jump into Nebraska last week,” Bielema said.
The coaches are sure that being able to jump in early will give the team an edge.
“Last Thursday was very much like a Tuesday of game week for us.” Bielema said. “Early-down value, things that we did was all on Nebraska.”
Bielema’s team was also able to do something they usually can’t during regular weeks.
“Friday they got an extended workout which they don’t normally get with our game week,” Bielema said.
Obviously, Saturday games usually call for Friday walkthroughs rather than workouts.
Sunday also called for something else that was unorthodox.
“We were able to throw at them another 15-period practice before we even get into our normal game week,” Bielema said.
This early preparation could be key with yet another Big Ten West battle on the radar.
‘New look’ Huskers
Nebraska had a very shaky start to the season, which led to the firing of former head coach Scott Frost.
They’ve developed a new identity under interim coach Mickey Joseph, where they’ve gone 2-2 since he’s taken over.
Led by QB Casey Thompson, the Huskers have a pass-first identity where they can really put up points if things go their way.
It’ll be nothing short of a challenge to say the least.
“Limiting the explosive plays,” said defensive coordinator Ryan Walters. “They’ve been money on those lately.”
With the gunslinging Thompson at the helm, those plays are always possible.
“[Thompson] likes to take chances and give his guys opportunities,” Walters said.
Nebraska has not faced a defense as good as the Illini’s so far — but it’s vice versa for the Illini who have not necessarily seen a pass-first team since Virginia.
“They’re a little more aggressive,” Walters said. “I do think they do a good job of identifying matchups and making them favorable.”
The Husker defense has seen its fair share of struggles, though, something the Illini offense will have to capitalize on.
That doesn't take away the fact that the Huskers will want to play their hearts out though.
“They’re big and physical,” Lunney said. “They play with a lot of intensity up front, they play hungry, really been playing well the last few weeks defensively.”
Also to note, one of the two wins the Huskers have won in Joseph’s short tenure came over the only team Illinois has lost to this season.
“They were able to beat an Indiana team by two scores,” Bielema said. “Something we weren’t able to do.”
Rematch game No. 5 for Illinois is scheduled to kickoff off at 2:30 p.m. CT from Lincoln on Saturday.